Dave Lyle plan draws a crowd

The future of a plan to extend Dave Lyle Boulevard from Rock Hill into Lancaster County didn't get much clearer on Monday, though elected officials, developers and business boosters did something they haven't yet: Get together in the same room to talk about it.

Supporters and skeptics at least got a better sense of where everyone else stands. A lunch meeting called by state Sen. Wes Hayes attracted a larger crowd than expected, with 75 people from both Carolinas showing up at Thursday's Too restaurant. State officials took part as well.

"I hope the roof doesn't cave in or we could have a real governmental problem around here," Hayes said.

The diverse audience -- participants ranged from Charlotte real estate giant Allen Tate to Lancaster County Council Chairman Rudy Carter -- underscored the renewed interest in the project, originally conceived in the late 1980s as a way to connect Dave Lyle near the Rock Hill Galleria to U.S. 521 in Lancaster County.

"This is one of the most important economic development steps in this part of the state," said Tate, who represented a regional roads committee formed through the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce.

Supporters tout a longer Dave Lyle Boulevard as an economic boon that would open up Rock Hill to Lancaster County's booming panhandle area and give motorists another way to reach Charlotte. Their hope is that the state will agree to pick up much of the price tag, estimated around $120 million.

Critics, including at least five York County Council members, argue that York County ought to focus on improving existing roads. That point of view and other familiar questions emerged during a two-hour discussion.

First, the project will face major delays if a decision isn't made soon. That's because an environmental impact study done on the proposed route expires in August 2008 and could take years to be re-done.

To avoid having the study expire, local officials must turn in an application for money to the state before August. Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols said he hopes that step can happen, if only to keep the conversation alive.

"There ought to be some way of keeping this on the radar screen and not letting those studies lapse," Echols told The Herald afterward. "Otherwise, that's just money down the drain."

The other major question involves a developer's plans for a massive housing development nearby. Newland Communities has amassed more than 1,800 acres and envisions a subdivision that could include 2,700 homes. Based on recent talks with the city, Newland is "optimistic" the project can move forward soon.

County Council Chairman Buddy Motz has said he's open to the extension but only if it doesn't mean approving Newland's plans as well. Motz, however, may have to go it alone in defending that position.

Five County Council members spoke against pursuing the extension at their regular meeting Monday night.

"We're looking to grab $120 million to subsidize somebody's development," Councilman Rick Lee said. "They're afraid to come before us because they're afraid we'll turn them down."

Echols reiterated Monday afternoon that he hopes the two issues can be viewed separately.

"If I have to make a choice, I want the road," Echols said. "But I think it's a matter of answering one question, then you ask the next. I think the road is a valuable asset to the upper part of South Carolina. I'm not pushing the road for Newland's purposes."

Toward the end of the discussion, Wayne Wingate, incoming York County Regional Chamber of Commerce chairman, asked Hayes about creating a task force to keep the process moving. But Hayes politely declined, saying the city and county levels first need to figure out for themselves whether they want to proceed.